George Frayne IV, who led the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a group that combined elements of the rock counterculture with a love for roots music in the early 1970s, died Sunday at age 77. Frayne had been receiving treatment for cancer for several years.
“Early this morning, as I lay my head upon his shoulder, George’s soul took to flight,” his wife, Sue, said in a post on his Facebook page. “I am heartbroken and weary, and I know your hearts break, too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared.”
Frayne’s seminal group was popularly best known for a remake of the 1955 rockabilly-flavored song “Hot Rod Lincoln” that made the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, peaking at No. 9, with some crossover impact on the country and easy listening charts.
Although the group’s style was often described in its early days as country-rock, the Bay Area-based band had a harder-driving style — and, as its sci-fi-serial-based name would indicate, more of a sense of humor — than other country-influenced artists coming along at the time down in Los Angeles, like the Eagles or Poco. The sounds of rockabilly, Western swing, jump blues, jazz and boogie-woogie piano figured into the band’s free-wheeling style as readily as country, finding enthusiastic fans among followers of rock groups like the Grateful Dead, for whom Commander Cody sometimes opened, as well as devotees of more traditional music forms.
Although it took until 1971 for their major-label debut, “Lost in the Ozone,” to be released, the group actually formed in 1967 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, going against the tide of the psychedelia that was peaking along with the flower-power movement in favor of sounds that dipped deep into the supposedly squarer music of decades past, like Western swing pioneer Bob Wills.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen released seven albums on the Paramount and Warner Bros. labels from 1971-76. After the original group’s breakup in 1976, Frayne continued to record and tour under the name Commander Cody until shortly before the pandemic kicked in.
He told the website Classicbands.com about the origins of the group’s name, saying they got it from “the same place that George Lucas got it: from Republic Pictures. In 1948, 1949, Flash Gordon like operations would run in theaters in between films. Then later, this character Commander Cody made three movies, one of which was ‘Lost Planet Airmen.’ I was watching the Lost Planet Airmen movie and I saw the Commander Cody character and I thought it would be a great name for a band. I had no idea anyone was going to have to be Commander Cody. I mean, there’s no Lynyrd Skynyrd. There’s no Steely Dan. There’s no Marshall Tucker. Why did there have to be a Commander Cody? That’s a long story in itself.
But, of course, there was little sense sci-fi in the music itself… although there was a lot of weed. “In about 1966 I found a Bob Wills album and marijuana,” Frayne said in an interview with No Depression in 2018. “I’m pretty sure those guys were stoned most of the time. I started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’ album that had ‘Crazy Arms’ and Buck Owens’ greatest hits. We did [Owens’] ‘Tiger by the Tail’ regularly. What country music afforded for us was there was no rehearsal; we listened to the record, we drank a bunch of whiskey and coke, and played. Country music is easy to do if someone knows the lyrics and the song, you can follow along relatively easily.”
But, comments like that notwithstanding, Frayne was a serious musician, whose foremost influence as a pianist was Fats Domino. “The Commander I knew was a music-history buff, fine-arts scholar and one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered,” David Malachowski, a guitarist who joined Commander Cody’s band in the late ’90s, told the Times Union, a newspaper in Frayne’s final hometown, Saratoga Springs. Malachowski pointed out the complicated nature of a piano playing style that required different rhythms and even speeds for left-hand and right-hand parts. “I asked him once how he did it, and he said he just played the left-hand figures nonstop all day for about a year, until it became second nature,” the guitarist said.
Born in Boise, Idaho in 1944, Frayne was raised in the Long Island area before attending the University of Michigan, where he received a master of fine arts degree in painting and sculpture the same year the Lost Planet Airmen assembled.
Frayne’s first Ann Arbor band was the Fantastic Surfing Beavers, with a different frontman. After the Commander Cody band formed, according to a 1970 profile by Ed Ward in Rolling Stone, “Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen have devoted themselves body and soul to country music and old-time rock and roll. But that devotion is not an easy thing to stick to in the Midwest where, chances are, you associate that type of music with the greasers at the drive-in who love to vamp on longhairs and inevitably wind up becoming cops. And it was even harder in 1967 when everyone was just getting into acid and revolution and high-powered MC5 music and all the other things that have put Ann Arbor and Detroit on the map.”
Frayne told Rolling Stone in that profile: “We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,. We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side. It was when the psychedelic ballrooms were starting to be big. We played the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on the same bill with Canned Heat so, naturally, the audience hated us, booed us, you know.” Yet audiences for the Dead and other groups cottoned to the group once they moved to the San Francisco area in 1969. Said Frayne in those early days, “We’d like to do for country music what (Paul) Butterfield did for blues.”
Of the hit “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Frayne said, noting how he came to be its lead singer, “At that time I couldn’t sing a note really, but I could talk fast. It became apparent that I’d have to become Commander Cody, ’cause all the guys in the band who wanted to be Commander Cody would’ve been out of the question. So, the band voted that I would have to be Commander Cody because I could basically talk fast and had a good rap and gave pretty good radio. Then people started saying ‘Who’s the Commander and what’s he gonna do?’ So I had to come up and do a number; because I couldn’t sing, I found out there’s a long history of guys who couldn’t sing. I first found it out through Phil Harris and traced it back to Johnny Bond.”
He found his shot in a remake of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” originally conceived in 1955 as an answer song to a hit from 1949 titled “Hot Rod Race.” If that destined them to be a one-hit wonder commercially, it was OK with him that that was the hit: “I like the song, so it doesn’t bother me to do it every night. No problem whatsoever.”
The original band’s sound grew less country during the 1970s. “We really liked [our sound] and we played that kind of music until we were booed off stage at the CMA Convention in 1973,” he told Seattle PI in 2013. “In which case we decided that, well, if these guys are going to treat us like this, we’re not going to do their music anymore. Because their attitude was, ‘Who are these hippies? Take a bath, find a rock concert, et cetera, et cetera.’ That was the end of our interest in country and western swing. The people from Texas found out that I wasn’t from Texas and they thought that I was stealing their music and they didn’t get it.”
In that same interview, he said, “I smoke a lot of marijuana and it’s really easy to change your groove around when you’re stoned. … I especially enjoy painting while I’m stoned, and I keep doing that until this very day. On the other hand, I don’t smoke weed at rock and roll gigs anymore, whatsoever, because I’ve been more interested in remembering all the words for the song. Don’t forget, I’m an old geezer. I can’t afford to forget the words.”
In a 2012 interview, Frayne quipped, “The secret is we’ve been doing the same set for 40 years. It’s like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ without the gay attire and dancing.”
Frayne was well-regarded as a painter as well as band leader, and published a book of his visual art, “Art Music & Life,” in 2009. He also taught art, including a stint on the arts faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. An experimental video he made, “Two Triple Cheese Side Order of Fries,” is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Frayne’s wife said on Facebook that memorial events are being planned. “We are working on 2 big gatherings, on both the east and west coast (The Island and the Bay Area) to celebrate the Old Commander’s phenomenal life, and to benefit musicians in need,” she wrote.